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The Smartest Decisions I made in 2011 ....

January 1st, 2012 at 03:47 pm

Apparently, I am destined to be one of those people who post only a few times a year. I did keep track of everything, but I do need to get better about posting DURING the journey …. regardless, I feel like a lot was achieved and I need to take a moment to reflect before beginning a new year.

I set some pretty hefty goals in 2011 – I wanted to pay off 25K worth of debt, I wanted to get into good shape and run a couple of half-marathons, I wanted to start writing a book, I wanted to build on my career certifications, and I wanted to help my mother (the hardest working woman I know) retire and begin a new chapter in her life.

Through a lot of hard work, all of that was achieved in one year … but it was NOT easy. Not every work goal was achieved, my savings were depleted due to repairs needed to home, vehicle and a broken crown. There were a lot of low moments at various times when I felt like I was getting nowhere, but I stuck with it.

Today – since 1 January 2011, I have paid off 25K of debt, lost 20 pounds, ran my best half-marathon time, supplemented my mom’s income enough for her to retire and gotten half-way through writing my book. Again, I did not achieve everything I wanted or do everything perfect, but if you will indulge me, here is what I did right and maybe it will encourage you as well ….

1) Made goals just out of my reach:
Having adopted a more frugal (and smarter) lifestyle the previous year with organization; reviewing and reducing all our bills; using free resources; changing all the “little things” (see the list of changes I made in 2010 – I kept doing all of that!) it was time to take it to the next level. I knew I could pay off ten or twelve thousand without too much pain but twenty-five thousand was going to challenge me … and hurt a little. The same goes for losing 20 pounds instead of five. My husband, who recently retired from the military likes to say, “If you want to break someone’s nose – aim for the back of the head.” So I accepted challenging goals, broke it down month by month and stuck to it.

2) Keep at it and have someone holding you accountable:
My husband, who “helped” me train for half-marathons, also had another saying … “The only way to run faster, is to run faster.” In other words, setting the goals was the easy part – the rest is just work. No other magic formula. Each month, I wanted to give up. I would feel I worked my tail off … only to lose a half pound a week. I would put the majority of my paycheck towards debt and feel “broke” all the time. It bummed me out. To ensure I wouldn’t give up, I made several people aware of what I was doing … I kept a chart that my husband could look at to see my money progress, I weighed-in each Friday with co-workers and I would keep my siblings in the loop about my writing. Inch by inch, it all moved forward. By the end of July 2011, I could see real progress and it helped propel me the rest of the year.

3) Ignore the Comments. Ignore the Joneses. Ignore the Haters:
With this economy, I never thought I would get the flak about my frugality that I got this year! Seriously, I haven’t had this much “peer pressure” since middle school. Most of it was light-hearted, but there was a LOT. My co-workers and friends made fun of my older car … my assistant constantly told me that her best friend “in high school” drove the same model and my company VP told me that I should get a car that suited my status in the company (I am one of the executive officers). I ignored them all and drove my paid-for low gas mileage car to work (while saving and looking for a good sedan, but I never intend to have a car payment again). My girlfriends at work laughed at my packed lunches and called them “meals on wheels” or “prison food.” They could not believe I would never eat out with them and or that I would stick to my weight loss regime (chicken breast and vegetables) or drink the office coffee while they shook their heads and sipped their café-bought lattes. By the end of the year, however, they were calling me “Ms. Skinny Minny” because of the weight I had lost and bemoaning the fact they didn’t lose a pound. Another fashionable woman in my office, was shocked to learn that I would check out library books instead of buying them (“I could never …” was her actual comment). She was also in disbelief that I was not buying a new outfit for the holiday party and cut/colored my own hair … but come Christmas-time, I had money set aside for all my gift buying and she was bummed out because she was either broke or maxing out credit in order to buy gifts. Additionally, no one remembered what I wore in previous years to company parties and my new slimmer shape, got me compliments in my little black dress as did my hair.
Half-way through the year, my husband and I visited his co-workers who had just spent a fortune remodeling their new house. It was beautiful! Returning to our modest home, he wanted us to consider building a new house. I convinced him to repaint our living room and complete a major do-it-yourself deck instead. The result was we still love our paid-for-therefore-no-mortgage house and he has taken pride in his new skill and what we own again. Whenever the “Jones” weaken our resolve, we spruce up the landscaping, change a picture on the wall or plan a new project and we are content. Plus, never having a mortgage payment is wonderful!

4) This website and others.
I LOVE reading your blogs. Reading your journeys encourages me. Thank you for being more diligent than I am! I also checked out many others, but this site was my favorite. I also read lots of books over and over (Tightwad Gazettes, America’s Cheapest Family, American Frugal Housewife and of course, Little Women – to keep me focused on what is important.) I can’t underestimate the importance of the community of people who share the same goal of living debt-free!

Well, there you have it! Again, I did not share anything that you didn’t already know, I just wanted to share “how we did it” strategies of 2011. I guess it is time to set some new goals ….

Happy New Year! May God richly bless you and your family!

Low-Cost Weight Loss

April 20th, 2011 at 06:09 pm

I talk about my co-workers a lot. Believe it or not, I really like these folks even though they do a lot of things differently (more expensive) than I do. For instance, we are all trying to stay (or get) in shape and lose a few (or 50) pounds.

Our successes (and dismal failures) in this area are similar, but as you may have figured out by now, my methods are different.

They pay for gym memberships; purchase frozen dinners or get some grilled-chicken take-out or subs; buy diet sodas; buy expensive supplements and protein shakes; fill their desks with 100-calorie snack cakes and have joined an on-line group with another monthly fee.

I prefer to run daily; make healthy meals and divide them for lunches/snacks; drink water or unsweetened iced tea; or light lemonade mixes from the dollar store and weigh-in weekly at my house. I don’t buy the expensive thermogenic supplements, but I do take a multi-vitamin and extra calcium/potassium when I am running. (I also take one tablespoon of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar daily, which is probably an old wives’ tale or a placebo, but hey – it is cheap and I haven’t had so much as a cold for years.)

In both cases, both of our methods are successful only IF they are done consistently so it is hard to say which is better – but my way does not cost the $200 - $300 a month that it does for one of my co-workers who does all of the pricier versions. I never understood the concept of “If I invest a lot of money into it, then I will definitely follow the program”. I tend to do better by making an investment in something I am already doing (a new song on my mp3 or better running shoes), but that is just me. Currently, she and I have lost the same amount so take everything I am saying with a grain of salt. Smile

Anyway …

That is not where I was actually going with this, I was going to write about the deals I have been finding at the dollar store with light wheat bread and 2% box milk that can be saved for recipes … or the deals on turkey products (ground, sausage, pepperoni) and how they cost more than regular versions but I make up the difference by cooking from scratch and avoiding anything in processed ….

However, my lunch break is over and I have to get back to work!

Instead, here is one of my family’s favorite low-cost, delicious pizza recipes (cost and calories is at the bottom.)

Yummy (Healthy) Pepperoni/Sausage Pizza
Ingredients:
Boboli Whole Wheat Crust (this can cost less if you make your own)
2 T Pizza Sauce (pizza, not marinara sauce or spaghetti sauce)
1 patty Jimmy Dean Turkey Sausage
8-10 slices of Hormel Turkey Pepperoni
Veggies – we like chopped onions and red/green peppers – but olives, spinach, etc would work.
1 cup shredded REAL mozzarella (no low-fat – it doesn’t melt right or make that much difference in calories).
Extra: parmesan cheese and Italian seasoning (My husband likes to add pepper flakes to his portion).

 Set oven to 455 degrees
 Toast the crust for 5 minutes (no toppings yet)
 Remove from oven
 Spread pizza sauce over crust and sprinkle lightly with parmesan cheese
 Add pepperoni slices and tear the sausage patty into small chunks and sprinkle around.
 Add Veggies
 Add cheese on top and sprinkle with Italian seasoning
 Put back in oven for 8-10 minutes depending on how crispy you like it.

Cost: $4.50 for the whole thing – of course, I am calculating that by the fact I am dividing the cost of the sausage, pepperoni, sauce and cheeses – the rest will be used later. This could cost less if you make your own crust and sauce … or use just cheese or something like that.

Calories: Cut pizza into 8 slices – and it is 180 calories a slice; Cut the pizza into 4 slices and it is 360 calories a slice … half the pizza is 720 calories … you get the idea.

We enjoy one of these every weekend. It is faster and cheaper than ordering a pizza and much lower in calories than a frozen one.

My dad likes it with sliced deli (light) ham and pineapple or barbecue chicken …

Extreme penny-pinching

April 19th, 2011 at 01:15 pm

In the effort to reduce our grocery bill (my personal best is $149.00 for the month - which I KNOW can be much lower), I buy most of my bread items at the dollar store.

When I was in the check-out line, I saw a pregnancy test for ... well, obviously, it was for a $1. I thought "Who in the world would buy a $1 pregnancy test?" But clearly, someone does or it wouldn't be there, right?

Which made me start thinking of the craziest things I have ever done to save money.

Right after college, I had a few weeks of living on grits (a southern staple but not very nutritionally sound) and iced tea as I lived paycheck to paycheck. More recently, I used YouTube to learn to trim my own hair and do my own highlights. Since it worked out, I don't consider that too crazy, but my co-workers consider that equal to performing my own appendectomy! Smile

I have never collected and consolidated ketchup packets, but I have washed and re-used ziplock bags. I do unplug every appliance in my house and control the water heater and thermostat, but I don't hang laundry as often as I should.

Now that I think about it, I probably could do more extreme things than I do.

What is the "most extreme" thing you have heard of?

Things my co-workers say ...

April 18th, 2011 at 01:11 pm

Me and one of my co-workers are known as the office frugal queens. We bring our own coffee and brown bag lunches every day.

Our co-workers think that is "cool" but can't bring themselves to do any of our stratgies. I would not give that a second thought except .... they complain about being broke all the time. They fuss about how little they make and how they can front the costs of educational courses the company wants them to take so they can make more money. (Our company re-imburses you, but you have to take and pass the course first).

Here are some things they do/say ...
~Go out to lunch - 3-4 days a week.
~Buy coffee or breakfast on the way to work 3-4 times a week.
~Run to the grocery store every other day...and always buy stuff not on the list that they saw when they got there.
~Pick up pizza or some sort of take-out on the way home.
~Leave their water heater going all day even though no one is home.
~I suggested the library to my assistant one day when she left her book at home and you would have thought I suggested she dumpster-dive!

There is a lot more than that, but you get the idea. These little treats they provide for themselves make their days brighter, but never add to the big picture.

Even though this makes me sound a little self-righteous, it helps to reinforce what I don't want to find myself doing.

I will add more as they occur ....

Starting a Farm ...

April 18th, 2011 at 12:54 pm

We paid a LOT of taxes for 2010.

We knew it was coming. My husband did a lot of independent contracting work and did not go overseas at all since he was out-processing from the military.
We had the money set aside so everything was paid on time.

However ....

Our accountant suggested that we create an LLC to begin some sort of write-off with our 5-acres. Now, I know there is a lot of logic to this, but I am the kind of person that if I am going to work at anything, I ultimately want it to make money - not "mostly lose" for the tax break. So, we brainstormed and we have decided to begin a small farm. (If you knew me at all, you would get tickled because I have no farming experience, I tend to name all our chickens and I work at an office all day).

We are starting with the obvious: boarding horses.
This requires only repairs to the barn and a good cleaning of the extra stalls and grooming area. We already keep our two well - adding two more will get our LLC going and cover all our costs for our own two horses.

We have partnered with another local farmers for hay (mostly fertilizer and labor - my husband - not me) and will possibly participate in cotton.

The most expensive part of this will be the cattle. We have land we can lease for pasture, but finding the right cattle at the best price is taking a little work. I am also a little anxious to get written agreements going with the folks we are partnering with. They are absolutely "stand-up" guys but I am not as comfortable with hand-shake agreements as my husband is.

Does anyone have a clue of a normal agreement between farmers would work or where I can go for that information? Each situation is different: sometimes we are going to front the seed/fertilzer costs and other times we are providing tools (tractor) and materials. I know we are getting near unlimited hay for our horses for now, but if we add cattle, that would not work as it wouldn't be fair for the others.

Any advice or good resources would be highly appreciated!

The Smartest Saving Strategies We Implemented in 2010!

January 1st, 2011 at 05:12 pm

The Smartest Changes I Made in 2010

My husband and I are extremely blessed to good jobs with good salaries, but last year, many of our beloved family members were hit with lay-offs and serious financial hardships. We decided we wanted to commit to helping each financially, but it meant we would have to alter our lifestyle quite a bit.

Both of us grew up in homes that could not be categorized as wealthy, middle class … or even lower middle class! Growing up, neither of our families had much, but it never felt that way. Recalling the austere lifestyle of our childhoods, we both discussed the creative ways our mothers could stretch a penny and our father’s could fix just about anything and we decided to apply their (among many others) strategies to our lives Thus began one of the most fun and resourceful years of my life. Though it wasn’t always easy, it was very empowering. My husband joked that saving money while keeping fun in our lives became my "favorite sport”!

By the end of 2010, we had helped all our family members get back on their feet, avoid foreclosures or bankruptcy and find jobs – which took some up until October. We increased our giving to our church and charities. We paid off major bills and put thousands into savings. In spite of all that, we still had fun. We traveled. We enjoyed books, music and movies. We ate VERY well. We had friends visit our home. We improved our wardrobes. Our marriage became even stronger.

Although I am in no way finished with these strategies (in fact, I am only getting started), I made a list of the “Top Ten” changes that had the biggest impact for us this past year. I am sure there are many of you who did even better, but if you will indulge me while I reflect, maybe it will be an encouragement to all of us in this “frugal” club!

1)Organized the spending year.
I am “one of those” folks who not only maintains very detailed planners, but saves the planners in a storage box each year. We made a list of everything we knew was due: annual memberships & fees, vehicle taxes, income taxes, gift occasions, travel. Eliminating surprises and constantly thinking of upcoming expenses helped us plan and resist temptations to spend unnecessarily. We also inventoried the house. We decided to stop buying things we already had: batteries, makeup, office supplies, extension cords, paint supplies, etc. By doing a detailed inventory of all our supplies, we saved time and money.

2)Review and Reduce.
We examined every bill we had and “tweaked” it as much as we could.
Electric: we paid more attention to the thermostat. We adjusted to a temperature that was more economical but still comfortable. We made sure we altered it when no one was home. I unplugged any appliance that didn’t have a clock to re-set and cleaned the coils of my fridge. We put a timer on our water heater. I began to washing dishes by hand and hanging laundry (my husband put a line up in the laundry room). Our bill went down by, $25 - $30 dollars a month.
Cable: This one was hard for me, but since we both have cell phones, we removed our home line, and got rid of DVRs, stopped any pay-per-view and got rid of premium channels. We changed to “broadcast cable” and internet only. We were mainly watching the regular channels anyway and still have stand-alone DVR which requires me to research TV schedules, but still tapes everything without monthly charges. We modify the rest with Netflix and Hulu. These changes saved $130.00 a month.
Monthly services: I cancelled our yard guy, our trash service and all newspaper/magazine subscriptions. We did our own yard work, took our trash to the local dump our taxes pay for (which helped us do significantly better with recycling) and used internet news sources. I still bought a Sunday paper for the coupons! 
Grocery: See #3
Auto: We located the lowest price gasoline (but still good quality) in town and made sure we always filled up there. We washed our own cars at home. My husband changed our oil and performed other maintenance services. This saved us a couple of hundred last year, if not more.
And on it went … we scrutinized everything from haircuts to vet bills (we have a dog, 2 cats, 2 horses and four chickens). Some of the savings were big and some were small, but it all added up and we were able to shift the saved funds in other directions.

3)Reduced the Grocery Bill.
This definitely had the biggest impact for our monthly savings. I began a price book (see Tightwad Gazette) to help identify a really good deal. I planned menus. I shopped grocery sales. I bought in bulk then divided it. I used coupons strategically. I went to close-out stores, day-old bread stores and dollar stores. I began cooking from scratch which helped us eat healthier and reduced our trash significantly since pre-packed foods are a lot of preservatives and packaging. I began using my crockpot, freezer, meat grinder and other appliances that had I had not used in a while. All of this shaved at LEAST $200 a month off our food bill – probably more when you considered we enjoyed food at home much more than restaurants and take out.

4)AVIDLY Used Free Resources.
The Library - this is probably my favorite place to “shop.” We have a very good one and I used it for: Movies, audio books (I have a long commute to work, but it became my favorite time of the day thanks to audio books), music, magazines … and, oh yeah, books! We checked out the latest novels and all sorts of instructional books. (They have all the “Tightwad Gazettes” and “America’s Cheapest Family” – my favorite frugal-living resource books.) Local libraries also offer a lot of events too: book signings, workshops and kids shows, but I did not do that as often. YouTube – My husband and I became avid do-it-yourselfers this year and since we both learn better from watching, we discovered there is so much instruction available on YouTube! Here are real examples of what we learned and implemented this year: “How to make hand-tossed pizza and homemade sauce”, “How to lay a tile floor”, “How to do professional highlights at home”, “How to do ferrier work” (it’s a horse thing), “How to make sour dough bread”, “How to do car maintenance.”, “How to do an up-do hairstyle for special occasions”, “How to create a webpage”, “How to install a new shower.”, “How to plant a vegetable garden.” And on it went ….. that was a partial list, but the savings in labor services were very substantial. All of our DIY projects turned out great (even the highlights!) and I was able to give away fresh flowers and organic vegetables/eggs at work which my co-workers loved!

5)Patience, Patience, Patience.
Once I got rid of the “must have it now” mentality, I realized that I could still do all the things I wanted without the higher price. I waited for the movies to come out on dvd. I waited until I found a better deal on Craig’s List, E-bay or just borrowed from co-workers and friends for a one-time use. I waited until electronics were marked down. I researched any large purchase for months before purchasing and I saved for it. I once heard a someone say: “people in debt ask how much the payments are and people NOT in debt ask the price, then work to find it for less.” I have been saving for my next car for a while now and it will keep driving the paid-for car I have now until I find the best deal and can pay for it all in cash. It is a challenge, because I can afford to have it now, but I know applying patience will make the purchase so much sweeter when it does not come with monthly car payments.

6)Changed our gift giving.
I have a "Jib-Jab" account and I create funny videos of my friends on their birthdays which they can view and post on their facebooks – no need for cards or gifts. I use cool bottles I find to give infused vodka or homemade cocktails. I bake homemade cookies. I use eBay, yard sales and planning to find many cool kid’s gifts.
I asked my family to modify our holiday giving: I requested no adult gift exchanges – kids only with a price cap, but each family had to bring something to add to the holiday fun. No one was offended – in fact, they were relieved and happy someone finally asked! The holiday result? The kids got lots while one family brought a big screen/projector to show holiday movies; another family brought sheet music/keyboard for a group sing-a-long; Jesse and I brought our dune buggy and gave rides (even to grandmamma); another family made a massive amount of delicious stroganoff; another family brought games (Taboo, Buzzword, Outburst, Battle against the Sexes) which led to MUCH hilarity and a lot of funny new memories. It may not work for everyone, but it was a fantastic Christmas this year.

7)The little things …
I have associates who often complain about being broke, but buy a premium coffee every morning, eat out for lunch every day, and pick up takeout or eat out 2-3 nights a week. I make my own coffee, pack my own lunch and make our dinner from scratch every day. My crockpot roast with carrots, onions and potatoes is ready when we walk in from work: smells divine, tastes delicious and usually provides a few lunches. No take-out necessary for a quick meal at a fraction of the cost and less trash. (As Dave Ramsey says “If you are saving money, you shouldn’t see the inside of a restaurant unless you work there!”) I polish my own shoes. I starch/press our clothes. I sew buttons and mend garments. I check out thrift shops and yard sales. I check my bank balance on-line everyday and realized they were charging me .55 cents for each bill-pay I completed, so I went back to mailing any bills. I quit buying magazines and other periodicals, etc. All small things but it added up!

8)Kept a motivational/idea budget spreadsheet.
I constantly updated monthly spreadsheets to I could record our successes, make a “game” about how much I could build my savings, revel in lowering the grocery bill from the month before, pat ourselves on the back when we found a great deal, jot down ideas or new projects to try, rejoice when I bill was paid off or journal when a family member secured employment. It not only will help us plan for next year but kept us focused and motivated.

9) I always asked “is there a way I can do this without spending money?” before I opened my wallet! Pausing to think it through before spending often showed me that I didn’t need it or I could come up with another way … necessity is the mother of invention.

10)This website & you all!
This may be my first blog entry, but I feel I know many of you. I went to savingsadvice.com almost every day in 2010. All of the above is not new but it does require a lot of focused energy. Reading your ideas and journeys everyday gave me additional ideas and encouragement. I checked out many others, but this site was my favorite. So much so, I’ve decided to join the bloggers and become more actively engaged! (I promise – my blogs will be significantly shorter after today!)

Well, there you have it! Again, I did not share anything that you didn’t already know, I just wanted to share “how we did it” strategies of 2010. Now that our loved ones have secured employment and these habits have been solidified all year, I expect to make some mighty gains this year and even give more to others in need. God is good …

How did you do? Feel free to share your ideas and strategies. I am sure there are several things I have not tried yet. Please feel free to add.

Happy New Year! May God richly bless you and your family!